TASHKENT -- One of the world's longest-imprisoned political activists has been freed after spending more than a third of his life "in living hell" in Uzbekistan.
Murod Juraev, a prominent opposition figure and former lawmaker, was released on November 12 after serving 21 years in prison, nearly double his original sentence. The 63-year-old Juraev was sentenced in 1994 to 12 years in prison for attempting to overthrow the government.
Supporters and rights activists claim the case against Juraev was politically motivated, that his sentence was arbitrarily extended, and that he was subjected to torture while incarcerated.
The Tashkent-based Ezgulik (Compassion) human rights center told RFE/RL that Juraev was released from a jail in the town of Chirchiq near Tashkent. He was seen being greeted upon his release by human rights activists and family members in a video taken by an RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) hailed the development, saying that "one of the world’s longest imprisoned peaceful political activist...was finally released from a jail in Uzbekistan."
Juraev, an ethnic Turkmen, was an Uzbek lawmaker in 1991 and 1992. He was also an active member of the opposition Erk (Freedom) party, whose leader Muhammad Salih has been living abroad to avoid political persecution since 1993.
In September 1994, Juraev was arrested in Kazakhstan at Tashkent's request and forcibly extradited to Uzbekistan, where he was charged with planning to overthrow the government by force.
His prison term was later cut to nine years, but Uzbek officials prolonged his sentence on at least four occasions due to violations he allegedly committed in prison.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that the United States "welcomes" Juraev’s release, calling it a "positive step," and urged Tashkent "to build on it by making it a prelude to the release of other long-held journalists, activists, and religious prisoners of conscience."
Juraev's release comes less than two weeks after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Tashkent with Uzbek President Islam Karimov during the U.S. diplomat's visit to the five Central Asian countries.
The State Department did not respond to an inquiry from RFE/RL about whether Kerry raised Juraev's case during the meeting with Karimov.
Kirby said in his November 12 statement that during Kerry's recent meetings with Central Asian leaders, the U.S. diplomat "underscored...the importance of doing more to protect civil liberties, human rights, and fundamental freedoms."
On October 29, before Kerry's visit to Central Asia, the France-based Association for Human Rights in Central Asia penned an open letter calling on the U.S. secretary of state to raise the issue of jailed political activists, including Juraev, during his discussions with Uzbek officials.
In its statement issued hours after Juraev's release, HRW called on the Uzbek authorities to thoroughly and meaningfully investigate credible allegations that Juraev had been tortured while in custody, that his sentence was arbitrarily extended and subsequently approved by judges in hearings that violated fair-trial principles, and that he was denied appropriate medical care in prison.
"The last 21 years have been a living hell that Murod Juraev and his family should never have had to experience," said Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia researcher at HRW. "The Uzbek authorities should see to it that those who are alleged to have tortured Juraev and arbitrarily extended his prison sentence are promptly investigated and brought to justice."
Numerous human rights groups have raised concerns over reports that Juraev's health deteriorated after being tortured in prison.
HRW in its November 12 statement also called on Uzbek officials to "immediately and unconditionally release the numerous other peaceful activists and human rights defenders who remain in prison following politically motivated and unfair trials."